I wanted to discuss the concept of a pro-style offense. I’ve heard this over many years, I’ve had a vague understanding this, but I’ve never really read anything that provided a more precise definition (at least, nothing I can really remember). By “explain,” I’m not necessarily thinking about nitty-gritty details of specific plays (e.g., blocking schemes, receiver routes, etc.) but rather more general principles and concepts. I wanted to talk about the latter, mainly to see if you guys agree or not with my understanding.
Before I start I need to make one clarification. Pro-style is not necessarily synonymous with NFL offenses, especially if we’re thinking about current NFL offenses. My understanding is that current NFL offenses blend pro-style offenses and spread passing offenses. When I say “pro style” I’m referring specifically to the NFL offenses prior to blending the run-and-shoot–i.e., early 90s or prior to that.
OK, let’s start. Here’s how I would sum up a pro-style offense:
Pro-style offenses attempt to provide a strong running and passing game by using formations, plays, and play calling in a way that integrates both in such a way that one enhances and creates opportunities for the other. A key part of this involves uses formations and plays that can offense can both run and pass effectively, which makes anticipating what the offense more difficult for defenses. One drawback here is that the offense has to run the ball effectively from a basic formation–e.g., 21 (2 RBs, 1 TE and 2 WRs). The offense has to be able to pass effectively from this formation as well. To do this in high school and college is difficult. I’m not sure exactly why this is, but my guess is that you need a lot of superior players at many positions, and executing this offense is really complex. In any event, run-and-shoot or option offenses like the wishbone aren’t inherently designed to integrate running and passing in a complementary fashion–not to the same degree as pro-style offenses.
Besides the formations and play design, pro-style offenses also achieve this integration by featuring TEs and FBs that can both block and catch the ball. Frequently featuring these positions allows the offense great versatility–giving them equal ability to effectively run and pass the ball for the same formation. Indeed, I feel like the prominence of these two position are a key way to distinguish pro-style offenses from non-pro style offenses. (I’m thinking of traditional TEs that can block and catch.)
Having said this, most pro-style offenses are run-based. That is, the running game is the foundation of the offense, and it’s used to open up opportunities for the passing game. Some exceptions might be Don Coryell’s offense in San Diego or Bruce Arians’s offense with the Cardinals. Both seemed to use the passing game to help set up the running game. However, I would classify both offenses as pro-style because they both want balance and feature running and passing in a complementary way, using formations, play design, and play calling to achieve this.
A key, or even, central feature of a pro-style offense is balance, or versatility. I feel like this is one of the most misunderstood aspects about pro-style offenses. Balance doesn’t just mean a 50/50 split between running and passing. I feel like that’s a superficial understanding of the concept. Balance means being good at both running and passing; if a defense limits one, the offense will be able to exploit the defense by resorting to the other. And a pro-style offense attempts to achieve this be weaving the running and passing games together in the way I mentioned above. Again, spread or option offenses don’t seem based on this principle. Passing occurs by overwhelming the defense with too many pass catchers to cover and perhaps using motion increase that difficulty. If the defense takes away the pass, spread offenses don’t seem designed to exploit the defense with the running game. The same can be said for option offense. The running game is built on creating several rushing opportunities, which the QB selects after the snap of the ball. The offense isn’t designed to exploit the defense with the passing game if the defense sells out to stop the run. In a way, balance means being versatile or flexible, although those words don’t seem entirely adequate, either. Another word that comes to mind is “unpredictability.” The way pro-style offenses achieve balance also creates unpredictability. Part of the reason for striving for balance is to be unpredictable to defenses. Non-pro style offenses are unpredictable, flexible, versatile and balanced.